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The fictional hamlet of Lumbertown in Blue Velvet, with its "sound of the falling tree" radio jingle, Eisenhower-era veneer of community values, and visions of singing robins overcoming the real -- though often surreal -- forces of darkness as personified by Frank Booth, Dorothy Vallens, and their fetishistic underworld cronies, was a creation of such perversity that no other director than David Lynch could have imagined, or, with such aplomb, delivered. To this member of the audience, Blue Velvet was a near masterpiece, inviting and repulsive in roughly equal proportions; it was as close to the inside of Lynch's mind as any sane person would dare to go without losing his own. As a statement on the parallel worlds of good and evil, this 1986 film evinced a greater grip on the subtext of America than many a mainstream picture. And Lynch's painterly legerdemain with the camera provided shots and images jarring enough to compete with such pedigreed visual pyrotechnicians as Stanley Kubrick, Nicholas Roeg, John Boorman, and Alan Rudolph. The question was: How much further could Lynch go out there before alienating an audience?
I was hopeful when Lynch announced (in 1990) that he was turning his countercultural chainsaw on television. The limitations of the medium (at least in this country, where TV censors play a powerful role regarding what enters into our living rooms) meant Lynch would have to rein in his most grotesque fancies; certainly the human ills and dark corridors of the soul that energize the Lynch creative engine like octane would be present, but concealed by layer upon layer of nonlinear storytelling.
The two-hour pilot for Twin Peaks, which I saw at the Miami Film Festival prior to its appearance on the tube, exceeded my expectations -- Lynch's perversity was out in full regalia. All you had to do was listen between the lines and look closely, and the idyllic burg of Twin Peaks became something so twisted it made a Lilliput out of Lumberton. But the series, which was compelling when tracking the central mystery -- who killed Laura Palmer? -- fizzled out as Lynch and his collaborators turned an eccentrically charming parable of suburban Americana into a quasi-Fellinian pageant with occultish and hallucinogenic contrivances too foolish to endure. (I tuned out early.)
Now Lynch has retold the same midget-riddled and dream-laden story, in basically chronological terms -- the seven days leading up to the murder of the homecoming queen -- in a protracted, 134 minute-long indulgence entitled Twin Peaks -- Fire Walk With Me. The film can only appeal to addicted fans of the series who will pay any price, even $6.50 and terminal soporiferousness, to revisit the Double R Diner's cherry pie. But Dale Cooper fans be warned: Kyle MacLachlan's doughnut-stuffing and Joe-drinking special agent appears for only a couple of minutes here; and it's hardly a star turn. Some of the show's more amusing leading players -- such as Michael Ontkean as Sheriff Harry S. Truman -- have been wiped out altogether. Even for two hours-plus of air-conditioning in the aftermath of the hurricane, Fire Walk With Me would be a hard bargain.
What we're offered instead is a proctoscopically close look at Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and her father, Leland (Ray Wise). If the TV series hinted at Freud, and the published The Diary of Laura Palmer (written by Jennifer Lynch, David's daughter -- no comment) speculated further, displaying a sexually troubled teen-ager, the new film flamboyantly and tastelessly shoves Laura's daddy troubles right in your face. Now it can be told: Laura Palmer is your basic backwoods nymphomaniac, who has a very marked preference for (receiving, not giving) oral sex. And in one of her dream/visionary states, she wriggles in ecstasy as daddy takes a dive. Oh yes, before I forget -- she also likes cocaine.
And what is to be said of spending all this time with Sheryl Lee? John Simon, in a recent review of a Broadway production of Oscar Wilde's Salome featuring Al Pacino as Herod and Lee as the princess, compared her "Dance of the Seven Veils" to the peeling of an onion, and wrote that while Lee may have been all right to portray a corpse in the Twin Peaks series, more "animation" was necessary for Wilde's Salome. Well, I would counter that something more than animation might be required for Laura Palmer as well. Sheryl Lee, appropriately strumpetish in appearance, appears to have graduated magna cum laude from the Ali McGraw Academy of Non-Acting Excellence -- she possesses two a range of two emotions: a whine and a double whine. (She sometimes manages a triple, but only just.)
And let's be honest: Sheryl Lee is a little long in the tooth to be playing high-school royalty: This Laura Palmer would more easily pass muster as a homecoming queen-mother. (She's eerily reminiscent of that irrepressible British slag, Susan George.) The remainder of the acting is, as you learn to expect from Lynch at his most irresponsible, extraterrestrial.
Perhaps Vincent Canby of the New York Times put it best when he wrote last Saturday: "It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree...Fire Walk With Me glazes the eyes and the mind." And what it does to the posterior, you can well imagine.
I must make a confession: Having watched a few episodes of the series and now this film, I'm as baffled as ever. What is the Red Room? Who is that horrible midget? Simple questions for the cognoscenti, no doubt. But if you have all the answers, don't call me. Some inquiring minds don't want to know.
TWIN PEAKS -- FIRE WALK WITH ME
Directed by David Lynch; written by Robert Engels and David Lynch; with Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, Grace Zabriskie, Dana Ashbrook, David Bowie, Chris Isaak, David Lynch, Harry Dean Stanton, Kiefer Sutherland, and Kyle MacLachlan.
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